Politics as usual



We don't have any politics here.

That line has to rank as one of the great myths of the modern workplace.

“Unless you are going to lock yourself in a room with no phone and no e-mail, you're going to have some element of politics,” says Patrick Gray, president of Prevoyance Group, a project performance consulting firm in Harrison, N.Y., USA.

Yet some project managers buy into the myth—to their detriment. Many believe that if they work hard and do a good job, they can avoid the politics of project management.

“There is a lot of denial that takes place. We refuse to believe that these things are necessary,” says Jeffrey Pinto, Ph.D., Andrew Morrow and Elizabeth Lee Black Chair in Management of Technology at Penn State–Erie in Erie, Pa., USA. He also wrote PMI's Power and Politics in Project Management [PMI, 1996].



Staying above the fray is noble, but it won't lead to long-term success. “In project management, it's absolutely necessary that people develop an appreciation for the appropriate use of influence,” he says.

Smart project managers understand their organizational systems and employ influence tactics as a means to further their project's goals. Sometimes people use politics inappropriately, however, to undermine colleagues, get other people to do the dirty work and halt communication. “Once you see this is a means to get what you want, you may find yourself using it when you don't have to,” Dr. Pinto says. “That's what leads to the destructive stuff.”

Perhaps that's why the mere word “politics” raises specters of slimy two-faced employees plotting their promotion as they annihilate their colleagues' careers.

Smarts From the Start

Project managers hoping for a checklist of steps to take to improve their political savvy will be disappointed. “I don't know if there is any nice little cookie-cutter strategy,” says Robert Joe Shaw, Ph.D., associate director-partnerships at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. In fact, he says, political practices that work in one organization may get you fired at another, so project managers should tread carefully. At an organization that relies on external funding, such as NASA, the process for making a request or gathering information can even change from one congressional election to the next. Needless to say, this can complicate things.

In any organization, though, Dr. Shaw says there are informal mentors who can give project managers guidance. They should find people they can ask casually for help or guidance, to see if a proposed plan of action is a good idea. “You take some risk, you see how it works,” he says.

One way to limit negative politics is to set up the project correctly. Eager to get started, project managers sometimes ignore some of the basics instead of taking the time to sit down and figure out what the project is about and who is to do the work. “The chances of project success can be seriously hurt by an absence of clearly defined scope and role responsibilities,” says Steven Keys, director of business development for Primavera Australia, a project management software provider in Sydney, Australia. “The absence of these tools, and the ensuing uncertainty, can create a gap in power that can be exploited by individuals.”

Politically savvy project managers get to know the stakeholders, says Michael Iaccarino, project management office practice partner at BusinessEdge, a consulting firm in New Brunswick, N.J., USA. This may be as simple as a meeting or lunch with the project sponsors to learn more about them rather than reading about them in a memo or picking up information from gossip. “You need to understand what is driving the decision and the perspective,” he says.

Look at the budget constraints and competitive pressures affecting those above the project level. If failure means that the department will be outsourced, for example, the project may face unrealistic deadlines and intense monitoring. “You see risks being taken that might not be ordinarily accepted,” Mr. Iaccarino says. If the project's success will lead to outsourcing, don't be surprised to see sabotage.

The Fine Art of Diplomacy

As in all political circles, maintaining diplomatic relations can help you get ahead. Project managers often need to deliver information tactfully, collect information without gossiping and smooth ruffled feathers in the workplace. Here are some tips:

1 Follow up on informal and verbal communications. “Send a note saying thanks for the round of golf, and I'd like to clarify that we're doing X, Y and Z,” says Brigid Milner at the Waterford Institute of Technology. It's polite, and it clears up any confusion before problems arise.

2 Gather information, but don't gossip. When a colleague complains about another person, ask, “Why do you think that?” and then listen, says Patrick Gray, Prevoyance Group. “People think you're a sympathetic ear without you jumping on their bandwagon.”

3 Know when to keep quiet. “There is a tendency to talk too much,” Mr. Gray says. By listening before, or instead of, giving advice, “you get the reputation of being a wise old sage instead of an underhanded dealer,” he says.

4 Forewarned is forearmed. Be wary of asking for and giving favors when dealing with known hard-ball politicians in your organization. Most of us willingly do favors for each other as a matter of course. Politicians don't think that way. They evaluate each issue and opportunity individually and then decide whether to cooperate or not—as it serves their purposes. “This is predatory politics and certainly not something I advocate,” says Jeffrey Pinto, Ph.D., at Penn State–Erie. “However, we need to recognize that this is the thought process of some others in the organization.”

5 Learn about other cultures. “Travel internationally and attend professional training events in environments foreign to one's own,” says Michael Mobley, Integrated Project Systems, Asia. If you can overcome your pride and arrogance, time abroad can lead to respect for other cultures that translates into more effective interpersonal relations.


When you talk ‘family,’ you set up expectations for lifetime employment.

—Marilyn Puder-York, Ph.D.

Good records should protect the project team. “Recognize and document the risks that are being introduced,” Mr. Iaccarino says. The sponsor may still be willing to take the risk, but the project manager can place responsibility for it where it belongs.

When talking to stakeholders, ask for the rationale behind objectives, deadlines and resource allocations. For example, it's fair for a project manager to ask why a deadline appears short in order to address the real need behind the request.

Make Friends in High Places

To see who is influencing the stakeholders, track the people copied on messages about meetings or presentations, Mr. Gray says. Many senior executives have a few trusted managers under them who they like to consult, and these are often the people who ask to get copies. Instead of complaining about their interference, he says, “hunt those people down and make them your friends”

Project managers should network with diverse organizational members and prioritize work relationships on the basis of work needs, not social affiliation or shared backgrounds, Dr. Pinto says. Make time to meet with different people throughout the organization who have specific knowledge about certain processes or practices.

Likewise, he says, project managers who want to wield influence should develop their reputation as an expert in their own areas.

This doesn't mean you have to become best friends with your coworkers or give up contacts outside the world of project management. It's about building professional relationships that might help smooth project functions in the future. If a relationship is not in place, it will probably be harder to get help.

Project managers should tap into informal communication mechanisms to keep people informed and engaged, says Andrew McGregor, managing director, Cohesion Project Management Solutions, a project and program management company in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“‘Can I buy you a coffee?’ or something similar should be a standard phrase that a project manager uses several times a day to get people into an informal, neutral setting,” he says. “The key is to build relationships before they are needed.”

Still, sometimes political connections will only get you so far. Even in cultures that emphasize relationships, successful managers focus on results, says Michael Mobley, chairman of Integrated Project Systems, Asia, a project management consulting and training firm in Singapore. “Having good guanxi [relationships] does not alleviate other concerns such as the partner's real intent and capability to deliver,” he says.

Call in the Coach

Project managers cannot survive on results alone, however. For those who need a little help mastering the politics of project management, “coaching is the most powerful intervention you can use,” says Brigid Milner, who lectures on human resources at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland. A good, professional coach can push people to try new things and hold them accountable, she says.

Some project managers may need to seek out therapy to help them navigate office relationships, especially if they have stressful jobs, demanding personal lives or past traumas, says Marilyn Puder-York, Ph.D. She's the author of The Office Survival Guide: Surefire Techniques for Dealing with Challenging People and Situations [McGraw-Hill, 2006].

Don't confuse your family with the office. Some managers refer to their organization as being “like family,” thinking this is a way to improve buy-in from the team. “When you talk ‘family,’ you set up expectations for lifetime employment,” Dr. Puder-York says, making business decisions harder and opening up managers to charges of hypocrisy. Instead, she recommends using such terms as “great team” or “strong organization” that convey dedication, solidarity and professionalism.

Just think of it as part of your political strategy. PM

Ann C. Logue is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., USA. She has written for Barron's, Compliance Week and Newsweek Japan.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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